The High Cost of Adapting Commuter Rail for the Post-COVID Future

U.S. commuter rail systems, primarily designed to bring workers to and from central business districts, must adapt to serve a broader population as the traditional workday changes.

2 minute read

May 25, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Alstom Train

Joseph M. Arseneau / Shutterstock

"The future of America’s commuter rail model, including its heavy staff levels, is in doubt because of COVID-19," writes Jake Blumgart in Governing. "U.S. regional rail systems," which "have long been oriented toward suburban white-collar commuters," suffered massive revenue losses as commuting slowed to a trickle. "In the long term, it is projected that remote work will remain much more common, even after the pandemic eases. That means the core demographic for commuter rail could either continue to work from home or only come into the office a few days per week."

To adapt, commuter rail systems have started adding more frequent non-peak hour service and greater frequencies, but agencies are hindered by high labor and infrastructure costs. "One of the biggest is inefficiently allocated labor costs. American commuter rail systems operate on an antiquated model, employing not just engineers who drive the train but multiple conductors who punch tickets and help passengers on from platforms that are (in many cases) much lower than the train doors. For example, the staffing levels on the Berlin S-Bahn, the German capital city’s regional rail network, are about one-third the size of the Long Island Rail Road (America’s busiest commuter rail system), which in turn serves only about a third of the passengers." Other problems include the "antiquated practices" such as inefficient diesel locomotives, "low-level platforms that don’t allow for easy boarding," and a much higher per-kilometer cost than European rail systems.

"But advocates of enhanced service argue that these infrastructural challenges are not as big as transit agencies are claiming. In an era when the federal government has been providing unprecedented support to mass transit and Congress is debating the largest infrastructure spending initiative in modern memory, there may be fiscal room to maneuver."

Wednesday, May 19, 2021 in Governing

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